Corbynism without Corbyn? A View from the 2019 Election

Paul Thompson

Halfway through the election campaign, I visited the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. Outside is a large structure in lights with the sign ‘There will be no miracles here’. That’s what it already felt like for this Labour supporter considering the party’s prospects. I still put the posters up, and scoured the polls and other indicators for signs of progress. Instead of a miracle, we got a heart-breaking rout. After any election defeat, the focus is inevitably on the leader and his or her strategy. Changing the leader, after all, is the easiest and most conventional fix. In this case it is complicated by the fact that the Labour leader is seen through the prism of his own ‘ism’ and a politics ostensibly built in his name. Miliband left with no discernible ideological trace, there is no coherent Brown-ism and even the term Blairite has functioned more as ritual insult than a description of a coherent philosophy or practice. This article considers whether Corbynism can survive Corbyn as a viable political project for Labour through an analysis of the roots of the Party’s election defeat.

I argue that though the Corbynite hegemony within the party should be broken up, much of the radical energy and ideas generated in the Corbyn years can and should be retained – within a more pluralist Labour project.

Corbyn as the problem

Whether the evidence came from doorsteps or polls, that Corbyn was a dead weight around the Party’s ambitions was blindingly obvious to all but the most zealous of Corbyn supporters Even many Momentum activists understood the toxicity and refrained from mentioning Corbyn on the doorstep. However, the tens of thousands of conversations with voters are sabotaged if you have to spend the first few minutes deflecting or diverting negativity towards Corbyn. The initial counterweight was the hope that Corbyn could repeat the 2017 rise from doldrums to darling of curious and/or enthusiastic crowds as the campaign progressed. It didn’t happen. With the exception of Liverpool FC away fans, ‘Ooh Jeremy Corbyn’ was heard only inside the citadels of halls packed with loyal followers. Corbyn is clearly a decent man, though he would not be an obvious choice to build a personality cult around. But that’s not enough. None of this is surprising. Corbyn was the accidental leader whose core skills were honed by a life of permanent opposition in rooms filled with people who already agreed with him. In interviews and debates, he lacks the agility and warmth to communicate effectively with the wider public.

All this we knew. In 2019, two factors emerged at a more critical scale than they did in 2017. The first was Brexit. This was never going to be easy for Labour, but the endless months of obfuscation and evasion dictated by Corbyn’s office and Unite drained away credibility from the Party and seriously damaged the leader’s standing, even among younger Remain supporters, though Labour retained strong support of young voters. Behind the largely pointless tactical manoeuvring was a fundamental misconception that the post-Brexit realignment in political identities could simply be wished away and replaced by class politics as usual. Corbyn is especially toxic to the kind of patriotic, socially conservative Labour leave voter that the Party was desperately trying to hang on to. Ultimately his ‘I will stay neutral’ position did not appeal to or convince enough people.

The second problem was anti-Semitism. Unlike the #neverCorbyn crowd, I did not think this issue ‘poisoned’ everything else that Labour was offering, or that the Party is anti-Semitic ‘from top to bottom’. However, the issue did immense damage and it was largely Corbyn’s fault.  Even setting aside his own history of dubious associations and careless endorsements, Corbyn’s early response was denial and deflection (‘condemn all racism/violence’). Eventually he had to abandon the denials and may have even genuinely recognised there was a problem. But the dynamic was set in motion among his core supporters, who continued to assert loudly and persistently that it was all exaggerated at best and a conspiracy at worst. Add into the mix clear evidence of interference by Corbyn’s Office into disciplinary cases to protect factional allies and this was an issue that was never going to be adequately addressed under Corbyn’s leadership.

By the time that Jon Ashworth unwittingly let the Corbyn cat out of the bag with two days to go, the truth was already out there and there had long been signs that many inside the tent knew it. Right at the start of the campaign, there was a tweet from Jeremy Gilbert stating that it might be too early for the kind of radicalism expressed by Corbyn and that we might have to wait for a new generation such as Sam Tarry.  Now I’m getting far too old to wait for Sam Tarry (even though he’s just been elected) and let’s face it there are others much more likely to be the chosen successors. More on this later. The nub of the problem was this. Corbyn’s own supporters built a ‘movement’ based on a form of personality cult: ‘the absolute boy’ and so on. Once that project had been fused with the individual characteristics of a leader who could not bear that weight, both they and we were stuck with him. Now Corbyn is gone or at least going, that project is in trouble. However, even knowing the Corbyn burden, his supporters thought that two other crucial forces would – or at least could – see Labour through to victory – the mobilisation of the mass membership and the manifesto. Once again, this was based partially on a reading of the 2017 campaign. As each of these claims is central to a vision of Corbynism without Corbyn, let’s take each in turn.

The movement myth

Both Momentum and the Corbynite remake of Labour claim to be social movements in some sense qualitatively different from mere faction or party. In practice, we can treat these claims as the same thing. Yes, Labour has a mass membership, mostly on the back of Corbyn’s elections. However, there is evidence that a large proportion of that increased membership is a kind of reserve army of Labour that can be mobilised to vote for the leader and the NEC, but little else. One sign of this were recurrent complaints from Corbynites on Twitter that they were losing key selection contests where members actually had to turn up and vote.

A fatal over-stretch error was made. The fact that Britain needs a deep transformation doesn’t mean it is ready for one, or, more specifically, ready for a massive programme of transformation all in one go. So much was promised, so much spending committed and so many policies launched, that any coherent, credible message was lost. Leadership supporters now repeat the claim that ‘our policies were popular’. Maybe, taken one by one, but not in aggregate or in context. The most plausible conclusion at this stage is that most of the electorate didn’t believe the programme was deliverable and this affected perceptions of whether its component parts were desirable or even worth listening to. This was exacerbated by credibility issues in the delivery of the message. McDonnell and his team might have done preparatory work, but spokespeople often struggled to explain a policy such as ‘free broadband’ beyond its headline features. If people do not believe your offering is credible, they cannot be inspired by it. And they weren’t. It was telling that as the campaign progressed the leadership defaulted to a defensive ‘save the NHS’ mode, with the manifesto ambitions mostly side-lined.

These problems were compounded by the framing. ‘For the many, not the few’ may have been the same, but the rhetoric was unhelpfully ratcheted up.  In a calculated attempt at a class-based left populism, the Party invoked a hard, polarising imagery in which the rich and powerful hate Labour’s policies and that is welcomed. Such rhetoric obscures the positive transformative messages of the Party’s programme and was discordant in a context where many already felt bruised by the polarisation produced by Brexit. If you paint a picture in which Britain consists only of rapacious billionaires and bosses and those on the breadline, the danger is that large numbers of people don’t see themselves in that picture.

The Left in general tends to over-invest in the transformative powers of the manifesto, in part because of its somewhat naïve belief that all will be well if there are enough correct ideas, effectively explained to an electorate always hungry for radical change.  Most people aren’t very interested in politics, are ‘low information’, and are as likely to enact preferences based on emotions as ideology. Incidentally, the Right tends to understand this better. This only highlights the missed opportunity for Labour to have had a simpler core message, exemplified in half a dozen attractive, transformational policies.

Which way now?

The lesson of this election is that Corbynism might be able to remake Labour in its own image, but it cannot remake British society through a mobilisation machine or a manifesto whose particular radicalism does not connect with enough voters. Having a new leader would make a difference, but not if it’s merely putting a different face on the same project. The Corbyn high command will have one objective now – secure the succession. There is a danger without adequate time and willingness to debate openly, a period of reflection is window dressing. It was no accident that we saw nothing whatsoever of Shadow Cabinet heavyweights such as Starmer and Thornberry during the campaign. Yet the prospects for a new face from inside that project do not look good. McDonnell is smart and competent but has rightly decided to step away. The two people chosen to stand in for Corbyn in the debates – Long-Bailey and Burgon – are project loyalists with little broad appeal. In fact, Corbynism has a real leadership problem; the talent pool is thin.

If Labour is to have a future as a viable political force, it needs a clear and visible moving on. As Paul Mason has argued, the Corbyn project is finished. If those at the top double down on their factional control, they may take Labour down with them. There is an alternative, if enough of Corbyn’s less dogmatic adherents are willing to envisage something different and more inclusive. A break doesn’t mean going backwards to a previous Labour project that had run its course. Much of the radical energy and ideas can be retained.  But the Corbynite hegemony needs to be broken and new alliances formed in a different kind of project. This was put well by Paul Mason:

The alliance that can make it happen is pretty obvious: the non-Stalinist left needs to build stronger working relationships with the soft left and the Labour centre…. Of course we need “reflection” — but the best form of reflection is debate, theory, openness — to academic evidence and polls. And the leadership apparatus around Corbyn doesn’t really do theory and openness. So Jeremy needs to step down soon and install a caretaker leader with a different apparatus. 

Pluralism requires mutual respect from and for different traditions and a degree of humility and capacity for learning that does not come easy to the vanguardist tradition of the Hard Left.  In the last week or so of the campaign, prominent Corbyn supporters such as Owen Jones and Ash Sarkar discovered the joys of tactical voting, but seemingly only for rather than by Labour. At the moment some on the Labour left are in the denial stage, taking refuge in blaming Brexit, the media, and voters in general – but there are also more thoughtful assessments of what the party might do next that cut across factional lines. For Labour to have any chance of moving forward, those in the centre-left also need to recognise that there is no route that does not involve constructive engagement with the Corbyn ‘movement’.

It’s inevitable that much of the immediate focus will be on the struggle around a new leadership. There are many reasons why the next leader should come from the non-Corbynite left. But I want to focus on one. The biggest challenge facing a new leader in 2020 will be the EHRC report, which is likely to be extremely damning and may find that the Party is institutionally anti-Semitic.  Only someone who has not spent the last two years denying there is a problem or engaging in factional manoeuvres will be capable of bringing Labour through that challenge and making the sweeping changes that will be necessary. Failure to do so could break the Party – it’s that serious. If a new, more inclusive leadership can steer the Party through this and other immediate challenges, the prospects may not be as grim as they appear. The Johnson Government faces its own strategic choices over Brexit that are highly likely to have calamitous consequences for the country. In addition, the UK electorate remains extremely volatile and capable of further switches of allegiance. There will be opportunities for recovery and renewal in the next Parliament, but if the membership chooses Corbynism without Corbyn, Labour may be finished as a serious political force.